When tasked with covering a Nick Drake song, your first thought might very well be, are my finger-picking skills up to scratch? Then you’d likely be anxious that your acoustic guitar isn’t tuned in the strange and unorthodox way it should be, while under pressure to do justice to Drake’s deeply poetic lyrics. You might also be tempted to slur the occasional word for jazzy effect, as you basically try to honor a uniquely melancholy acoustic sound that’s become a sacred thing since the English singer’s death in 1974, aged just 26, from an overdose of antidepressants.
The message behind The Endless Coloured Ways – The Songs Of Nick Drake, however, is this: don’t sweat all that stuff.
The newest Drake tribute album curators are Cally Callomon, Manager of the Nick Drake Estate, and Jeremy Lascelles, co-founder of Blue Raincoat Music, who are both keen to popularize Nick Drake posthumously in major new ways. Indeed, now that the Estate has agreed to a global publishing deal with Blue Raincoat Music Publishing, why wouldn’t they be? Lascelles, therefore, claims to have issued “one simple brief to each of the artists” involved in paying tribute to the musician barely recognized in his lifetime, which was to “ignore the original recording of Nick’s, and reinvent the song in their own unique style.”
It feels absolutely right, too, that Lascelles should encourage radical approaches to the revered Nick Drake canon on this new project, with a host of diverse names on board that range from Fontaines D.C. and Liz Phair to Philip Selway, Let’s Eat Grandma, Self Esteem, John Grant, Aldous Harding, Guy Garvey, and Feist. It feels right because the singer is deserving of more recognition than he’s had so far outside of the indie-folk or progressive-folk world, having never really fit neatly into the “folk singer” box. Sure, he penned pastoral lyrics on the three albums he released between 1969 and 1972, and was a genius on the steel strings who owed a debt to Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, Donovan, and the rest. But he was also solitary, apolitical, intensely introspective, and romantic in his singer-songwriting, with no inclination towards performing “traditional” songs or engaging with a community. He was, at least according to his one-time producer John Wood, more like “an English version of a French chansonnier.”
So happily it’s with an open-minded view of Nick Drake as a lone performer of musical poems, by turns whimsical and spiritual, that the artists on The Endless Coloured Ways pay tribute. They more than fulfill Lascelles’ brief by ambitiously pursuing the “endless coloured ways” of interpreting and recording the tracks, in line with a phrase lifted from the poignant “From the Morning,” off Nick’s final album, Pink Moon. They put their name to a wonderfully varied 25-track salute to the singer, on the heels of a generous five advance double A-side singles, all distinguished by the hallucinatory merged-image landscape photography of Bill Jackson. In fact, they deliver an album that brims with ideas and outshines all previous Nick Drake tribute albums in terms of sheer experimentalism, even the Joe Boyd-curated Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake of 2013, which boasted Lisa Hannigan’s brilliant reinvention of “Black Eyed Dog” on melodica.
It’s Fontaines D.C., on distorted electric guitars, who best demonstrate the extreme approach to the Nick Drake catalog on The Endless Coloured Ways, in a manner that’ll surely help introduce the tunes to a new audience. It’s a fair bet, indeed, that no beat-poetry-inspired, post-punk band from Dublin has ever yet covered the hushed “Cello Song.” And surely not with such revelatory results, even before singer Grian Chatten opens his mouth. There’s an ominous drone which gives way to an urgent rhythm, a rumbling bassline, a hail of guitar noise, and the kind of messed-up violin sound John Cale brought to the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” There may be a cello present (it’s hard to tell), but there’s definitely a gritty intensity not traditionally associated with Drake, leaving Chatten only to bring the track home in his distinctive Skerries accent and breathe new life into Nick’s haunted lyrics.
John Parish and Aldous Harding are similarly stunning in their radical approach to “Three Hours,” which, like “Cello Song,” hails from the revered Drake album Five Leaves Left. The longtime PJ Harvey collaborator and the enigmatic New Zealand singer-songwriter prove collaboratively that the epic song can flourish without intricate guitar arpeggios and with a motorik beat, an angular bassline, a looped electric piano, and a fine line in creepy synth noises. Parish’s voice might resemble Drake’s in tone but, otherwise, this sounds more Krautrock than even the last War On Drugs record. It further proves a perfect musical expression of the song’s tense energy and mysterious narrative that’s built around a Wordsworthian quest for meaning in nature. Perfect, indeed, for the duo to harmonize Nick’s mystical lines about Giacomo fleeing London and taking “his woes down to the sea… In search of a lifetime / To tell when he’s home / In search of a story / That’s never been known.”
Similarly, John Grant sees little point in paying reverence to Drake’s mesmerizing guitar work when it comes to covering the bleak “Day is Done,” let alone the sublime Robert Kirby string arrangement that accompanied it. He’s sticking to his synthesizers, thank you very much, which is every bit the right move when they’ve long been his resource for vividly expressing his dark states of mind. So it is that one of Nick’s signature songs—unnervingly preoccupied with futility and death—is colored in a gloomy, Vangelis-style electronic ambiance, and a rich, lived-in baritone. All very convincing in delivering the chilling message: “Now there’s no time to start anew / Now the party’s through.”
With Grant’s contribution an obvious standout, The Endless Coloured Ways is abundant in successful cross-genre reimaginings. Who knew that the unadorned “From the Morning” would work as a gorgeously ethereal slice of synth-driven dreampop, courtesy of UK duo Let’s Eat Grandma? Who knew that the fragile “Place To Be” would convince as a Van Morrison-esque soul number by David Gray, with slick percussion and layered vocals? Or that the eerily skeletal “Black Eyed Dog” would shine as an orchestral piece of immense cinematic power, care of Craig Armstong and Self Esteem?
That’s not to mention Radiohead’s Philip Selway, who’s always worn his Nick Drake influence openly in his solo work, and here ups the vulnerability of the redemption-themed “Fly” with his gruff, half-spoken vocal and his frankly quite creepy concoction of string instruments. There’s Mike Lindsay (of Tunng) and Guy Garvey (of Elbow), too, pulling off a semi-psychedelic “Saturday Sun,” complete with glitchy synth effects, the soft sax sound of Robert Stillman, and a big freakout of an ending.
If the experimentation goes slightly awry at all on the album, it’s with Stick in The Wheel’s “Parasite.” The London duo are brave to bring broken robotic vocals to this highly impressionistic and neurotic Drake song about alienated London existence on the Northern line, but the result is too much on the dreary and monotonous side. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s better to keep things a little more traditional (okay, folky), as Scottish luminaries Karine Polwart and Kris Drever do on “Northern Sky”, or as Birmingham (UK)-based Katherine Priddy does on “I Think They’re Leaving Me Behind.” The latter singer, in fact, triumphantly rescues a raw and rarely covered early demo song off the posthumous Family Tree compilation and turns it into the soaring, strings-laden epic it deserves to be.
The fact is, then, that neither Priddy or any of the artists included on The Endless Coloured Ways can be accused of dialing it in. All succeed in illuminating Nick Drake’s melodies, lyrics, rhythms, hooks, and, yes, humor, in surprising and enticing contexts, which adds to our appreciation of a unique, gifted, and obviously troubled outsider songwriter. From vastly different musical perspectives, they share in Drake’s search for meaning, go to the places he found comfort, and go to the places he found despair. It’s that sense of empathy that drives this record to great heights.
The Endless Coloured Ways – The Songs Of Nick Drake Tracklist:
The Wandering Hearts – “Voice From A Mountain (prelude)”
Fontaines DC – “Cello Song”
Camille – “Hazey Jane II”
Mike Lindsay feat. Guy Garvey – “Saturday Sun”
Bombay Bicycle Club and The Staves – “Road”
Let’s Eat Grandma – “From The Morning”
David Gray – “Place To Be”
John Parish and Aldous Harding – “Three Hours”
Stick In The Wheel – “Parasite”
Ben Harper – “Time Has Told Me”
Emeli Sandé – “One Of These Things First”
Karine Polwart and Kris Drever – “Northern Sky”
Craig Armstrong feat. Self Esteem – “Black Eyed Dog
Bombay Bicycle Club and The Staves – “Road (reprise)”
Nadia Reid – “Poor Boy”
Christian Lee Hutson feat. Elanor Moss – “Which Will”
Skullcrusher and Gia Margaret – “Harvest Breed”
Katherine Priddy – “I Think They’re Leaving Me Behind”
AURORA – “Pink Moon”
Joe Henry and Meshell Ndegeocello – “Time Of No Reply”
Famous Blue Cable featuring Feist – “River Man”
Liz Phair – “Free Ride”
Philip Selway – “Fly”
John Grant – “Day Is Done”
The Wandering Hearts – “Voice From A Mountain”